By JAN BIRCH
PARIS-In France since the beginning of this year there have been a series of teachers strikes in primary, secondary, high schools, and vocational schools.
The strikes have been marked by a number of unusual things. Unlike many teachers strikes that pit teachers against students and parents, these strikes, in many cases, have united whole working-class communities, bringing parents, students, and teachers together. They have occupied schools and railroad stations.
The strikes have lasted from a few days to several months and have taken place all over France in poor and working-class communities.
The strikes are the latest response by working-class people in France to the continuing attacks of both the bosses and the government on their standard of living and quality of life.
Many of these communities face serious economic and social problems-high unemployment and few if any real prospects for jobs for young people, many of whom feel that graduation will not lead to a good job.
Immigrant workers face problems with racism and and some face expulsion if their illegal status is discovered.
These are serious problems with staffing in the schools, with large numbers of vacant positions both for teachers and other school personnel. The lack of staffing contributes to larger classes and less effective instruction as a result. This, combined with the other social and economic tensions, has contributed to a big increase in discipline problems and violence in the schools.
The teachers demanded a huge increase in funding for the schools, the hiring of thousands of more teachers, and a resolution of the temporary status of the teachers.
They want the schools with the most problems designated as “Education Priority Zones” by the government, which would give teachers bonuses for teaching in these schools as well as bringing in extra teachers and thus reducing class size to 20 pupils to a class.
The movement was very militant and full of good tactics. For example, for several days, the strikers followed the Education Minister around where ever he went.
Strikers made a human chain around the new soccer stadium near Paris, built for France’s hosting of the World Cup in 1998. They said that the cost of the new stadium would have gone a long way to funding public services.
The movement held many demonstrations in local areas but also held massive ones of over a hundred thousand in Paris.
Not only did the strikers reach out to include parents and students but they reached out to other workers as well. There were links made between the teachers and workers on strike at a big hospital strike in the Seine-St. Denis department. The teachers in Limoux went to a striking factory and joined with the workers there who were fighting against lay offs.
The strikes were also marked by a high level of self-activity and democracy. Strikers met in general assemblies twice weekly-and sometimes daily.
In many cases the strikers bypassed their traditional union leaderships and broke through the usual corporate barriers that keep workers isolated from each other. The teachers met together no matter what union they were in, or if they weren’t union members at all. They met together even though they worked at different schools.
They made their own decisions about prolonging the strike and what tactics to use. In particular the strikers had to go beyond the policies of the French Communist and Socialist parties, who through their unions have a big influence among the teachers.
These parties are responsible for the policies that caused the strikes. They have presided over the increased attacks on the working class.
The strikes forced the government to get rid of two of the ministers most identified with popular discontent and to promise $1 billion. This will create only 5000 jobs when it is estimated that tens of thousands of positions are really needed for both teachers and school personnel.
The government is trying to maintain the same policies. They hope that perhaps illusions in the new ministers combined with a two week spring vacation will bring the teachers’ strike movement to a close. Whether this will work remains to be seen.
The teachers have shown that they understand that it is the organization, initiative, creativity and militancy of the teachers, the parents, and the students together which will bring about the changes they need.
It is precisely these kinds of social movements taking place in France today that open up the prospects for both the teachers and the youth to win a better life for themselves.